knows the Kama Sutra is ancient India's racy
sex manual. The title conjures titillating visions of erotic
frescos in which regal maharajas with outsized genitals cavort
with naked bejeweled nymphs in positions exotic enough to
slip the discs of a yoga master.
Kama Sutra literally means "treatise
on sexual pleasure." Unlike the Christian view that the
sole purpose of sex is procreation, in the fourth century
Hindu world that gave birth to the Kama Sutra, the cultivation
of sexual pleasure, independent of procreation, was considered
one of life's highest callings. The ancient Hindus believed
that life had three purposes: religious piety (dharma), material
success (artha), and sexual pleasure (kama). All three were
equal, and the erotic was celebrated as the seat of earthly
beauty. In the Hindu world the pursuit of sexual pleasure
was revered as a sort of religious quest..
The Kama Sutra was written by one Vatsyayana Mallanaga,
about whom nothing else is known. However, from the text,
it's clear that he was upper-class. He takes servants for
granted, and assumes his readers have the leisure time to
seduce virgins and other men's wives, and the money to buy
the gifts he recommends giving to do so. Vatsyayana also claims
to have written his treatise "in chastity and highest
meditation." It's hard to know what to make of this.
Some commentators have scoffed that, given the subject matter,
this seems highly unlikely. But considering the reverence
with which the ancient Hindus approached matters sexual, it's
also possible that Vatsyayana wrote his book with the gravity
of, say, a modern-art critic discussing a cache of just-discovered
erotic paintings by Picasso. We'll never know.
The Kama Sutra may be the ancient world's most famous sex
book, but it was by no means the first. The Chinese had sex
manuals 500 years earlier, and Ovid's "Ars Amatoria,"
a handbook for courtesans, preceded the "Kamasutra"
by some 200 years. The Kama Sutra is not even the
first Indian sex guide. Vatsyayana mentions several sages
who trod his erotic path before him.
The sexual culture it describes is also surprisingly like
our own. While the Kama Sutra describes girls and women as
dependent on their fathers, husbands and adult sons - in the
manner of women in today's Arab Middle East - in the India
of the text, they enjoyed an independence and freedom of movement
Saudi or Pakistani women can only dream of. While their wealthy
fathers and husbands were running businesses and the government
- not to mention fucking around - young women were often free
to date men and select their own husbands, and married women
were free to select lovers and entertain them.
The Kama Sutra is organized in seven sections
that track men through life. In Book 1, the bachelor sets
up his pad. In Book 2, he perfects his sexual techniques.
This is the book that has inspired the videos, games and everything
else that flies the Kama Sutra flag. In Book 3, our young
man seduces a virgin. In Book 4, he marries and sets up a
household for his wife and servants. By Book 5, he has grown
sexually bored with his wife, and turns to seducing other
men's wives. Eventually, as he ages, the effort necessary
for such dalliances loses its charm, so in Book 6, he takes
up with courtesans, who work to please him - but for a price.
Finally, in old age, he fears he is losing his potency and
attractiveness, so Book 7 contains recipes for herbal potions
to preserve them.
Although Vatsyayana was a man writing for
men, some of the Kama Sutra speaks directly to women: Book
3 tells virgins how to attract husbands. Book 4 instructs
women how to be good wives. Book 6 deals with the skills required
of courtesans - including how they should provide for their
own old age by stealing from their patrons. This information
does not seem odd until you realize that in fourth century
India, few if any women could read. It's not clear how they
obtained the Kama Sutra's information. Apparently, some did.
Presumably literate men read it to them, as clergy a few centuries
ago read the Bible to illiterate congregants.
Book 2, the sex manual, recognizes women
as full, lusty participants in sex, and exhorts men to learn
ejaculatory control to last long enough to bring them to orgasm:
"Women love the man whose sexual energy lasts a long
time, but they resent a man whose energy ends quickly because
he stops before they reach a climax." (Apparently, Vatsyayana
didn't know that many women never reach orgasm solely from
intercourse no matter how long it lasts.) Nonetheless, the
Kama Sutra is very attentive to women's pleasure, a view that
arrived in our culture only a few decades ago, a view still
lost on many men.
Book 2 also instructs men to treat women in such a way "that
she achieves her sexual climax first." How can a man
do this? By following Book 2's extensive discussion of the
fine points of what today we called "foreplay" --
embracing, kissing, and other types of touch calculated to
heighten sexual arousal. The "Kamasutra" gets a
little wild here. It touts slapping and spanking with accompanying
shrieks and moans, and is particularly enamored of scratching
and biting: "There are no keener means of increasing
passion than acts inflicted by tooth and nail." It even
sings the praises of scars caused by erotic scratching. It
considers them advertisements of erotic prowess: "Passion
and respect arise in a man who sees from a distance a young
girl with the marks of nails cut into her breasts."
Book 2 advocates use of sex toys, and suggests sex while bathing.
It also describes how a man can best satisfy two women at
the same time (fondle one while having intercourse with the
other), and how two or more men should comport themselves
when sexually sharing one woman (take turns having intercourse,
and while one is inside her, the others should fondle her).
Earlier I mentioned the Kama Sutra's unexpected aversion to
oral sex. Vatsyayana declares, "It should not be done
because it is opposed to the moral code." But apparently,
he understood that ancient Indian men enjoyed blow jobs as
much as men do today, because after condemning oral sex, he
provides elaborate instructions to women on how to perform
what the Kamasutra calls "sucking the mango." Then
Vatsyayana reiterates his condemnation of oral sex, saying
it should be enjoyed only with "loose women, servant
girls, and masseuses" with whom a man "does not
bother with acts of civility." Finally, in an ambivalent
aside, he allows that some men enjoy sucking each other's
mangoes, and that some even perform cunnilingus: "Sometimes
men perform this act on women, transposing the procedure for
kissing a mouth."
In Book 3, the Kama Sutra insists that men who seduce virgins
do so very tenderly. It advises courting a virgin for many
days before bedding her. The suitor should engage her in interesting
conversation, shower her with gifts, play board games with
her, and work to win her trust, all the while remaining sexually
abstinent to set her at ease. As the big moment approaches,
he should send her little sculptures of goats and sheep with
major erections. If she takes the hint, she should signal
her willingness by flashing him -- "revealing the splendid
parts of her body." Finally, they make a date to meet
and have sex.
But tenderness toward women goes only so far in the Kama Sutra."
If a virgin is unwilling to go all the way, men are instructed
to have a brother ply her with liquor, and "when the
drink has made her unconscious, he takes her maidenhead,"
i.e. he rapes her. In the Kamasutra's view, rape is acceptable
not only for reluctant virgins, but also for other women:
"A man may take widows, women who have no man to protect
them, wandering women ascetics, and women beggars ... for
he knows they are vulnerable ..."
The Kamasutra devotes only nine pages to the care of wives
in Book 3, but almost three times the real estate, 26 pages,
to Book 4, the seduction of other men's wives. It exhorts
wives to be doting, dutiful, careful managers of servants,
and always well-mannered, well-dressed and faithful. But it
also assumes that wives eventually bore their husbands. As
a result, a man is perfectly justified in seducing other men's
wives, who are exciting, challenging, worthy of indefatigable
pursuit, and great fun in bed. If a wife discovered that her
husband had been unfaithful, she was over a barrel. In fourth
century India, she couldn't leave him as a modern woman might.
She was obligated to remain dutiful. But the Kama Sutra allows
her to be "mildly offended" and "scold him
with abusive language." However, she was forbidden to
resort to "love sorcery," i.e. herbal potions, to
win him back, presumably because that might ruin his well-deserved
When it comes to seducing other men's wives, the Kamasutra
is not above a little shameless self-promotion either. It
asks: Which men are the most successful at it? Those "who
know the Kamasutra."
The Kamasutra's matter-of-fact acceptance of infidelity is
tempered by only one caveat: Men were not to go that route
if it was likely to "bring disaster," i.e. violence
or financial reverses. To prevent disaster, the "Kamasutra"
lists women who should be avoided, notably those who are "well
guarded or with their mothers-in-law." Once a man has
selected an eligible extramarital target, the Kama Ssutra
instructs him to woo her with all the focus and creativity
he would bring to courting a virgin, except that in the case
of another man's wife, he had to be more stealthy and deceptive,
which made the chase all the more exciting and intellectually
Of course, if a man seduced another man's wife, chances were
good that some other sexually itchy gent might decide to seduce
his. Wives were expected to be faithful, but with so many
men getting action on the side, many wives must also have
been cheating. The Kama Sutra concludes its discussion of
extramarital affairs by saying that it does not advocate philandering,
but rather seeks to prevent it by describing all the ways
libidinous lotharios might cuckold them in order to warn husbands
worried about their wives' wandering eyes. Given the extraordinary
detail with which the Kama Sutra describes infidelity, I doubt
that any fourth century reader believed this. (The KamaSutra
does not discuss how a husband should deal with a wife's infidelities,
but I doubt that all she got was a scolding.)
In the end, the Kama Sutra describes a highly sexual world,
one that does not condemn unbridled pleasure as our culture
does, but prefers amoral pleasure that's somewhat restrained
simply because it's easier for all concerned. It's a sexual
world committed to erotic tenderness, yet capable of casual
cruelty, a lusty world that venerated sex for its own sake,
not just for procreation.